Complexity Theory and Respect for Trees

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

The loss of two trees this morning does little to improve my mood.

One of the trees was one of two birches my mother had planted, and gotten about the expected lifespan out of despite it being in, for it, a less than ideal climate. The other was a large tree that a branch broke from earlier this week. The tree surgeon came this morning and cut them both down.

My cat, who ignores much human foolishness, seemed clearly annoyed.

I have long sensed a sentience in trees that deserves a more respectful treatment than the cavalier attitude with which we so readily cut them down in so many cases. On the streets of San Francisco, it is hard to find even a medium-aged tree; they seem to be pulled out and replaced with younger ones long before they can ever attain any sort of majesty, let alone break the wind that funnels down the straight streets of San Francisco’s grid system.

Likewise, around office buildings, it seems that the architectural conceptions of trees of a particular size must prevail, and as soon as any tree outgrows the drawing, it too must be replaced. In my last quarter at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward, they tore down some buildings to make way for a new physical fitness facility; here, they couldn’t even be bothered to cut a big old tree down, but tore it in half before ripping it out.

Close to where I now live, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has approved a plan to rip out an apple orchard, replacing it with a winery, so the Best family can make more money.

I am wounded and angered even when I will benefit from the trees’ removal, as with the redwood trees at the junction of U.S. 101 and Highway 116 in Cotati for a freeway widening I accept as necessary. And even when, as at my mother’s house, the trees are diseased and rotting, and undoubtedly a hazard.

It’s possible to dismiss my feelings about trees as superstition, perhaps even as a throwback to the Druids. But in reading Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1995), and Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Creskill, N.J.: Hampton, 2008), I am compelled to another view.

Macy, I think, does a better job of the two in presenting an ontology of interrelationship that casts a new light on the mind-body relationship not as body producing mind or even the other way around, but as mind and body arising in a mutually dependent relationship. In her view, cause and effect take not a linear form of A causes B, but that of mutual conditioning where A affects B and, crucially, vice versa.

In such a view, mind is not the product of a whole lot of neurons assembled in a brain, but in fact intrinsic to existence. Macy writes that “no intrinsic reason exists for denying subjectivity to animals, plants or even suborganic systems” (p. 150). This also works upwards to “collective forms of consciousness, ‘group heads’ in a family, sect or society” (p. 151).

The reason this makes sense is that self-organization is an essential characteristic for any system, be it that of atoms with particular arrangements of protons, neutrons, electrons, and other subatomic particles; be it that of molecules assembled with particular structures of atoms; be it that of life or of other organizations. All these are structures that arose from and in fact depend upon the dissipation we associate with entropy. And yes, we are to understand thus that order and disorder exist in such a relationship of dependent co-arising, as self-organization channels the disorder into the order we find even on a grander scale with planetary systems and galaxies.

As for trees, Morin writes:

It has recently been discovered that there is communication between trees of the same species. The discovery followed the experiment of a group of sadistic scientists (as they must sometimes be to do experimental work!) who removed all the leaves from a tree to see how it would behave. The tree reacted as expected, that is by increasing its secretion of sap in order to replace the leaves that had been removed. The tree also secreted a certain substance which protects it from parasites. . . . What’s interesting, however is that the neighboring trees of the same species started secreting the same antiparasitic substance as the tree that had been attacked. (p. 77)

Trees have mind and they communicate, perhaps even to us if we listen in the right way, and as I believe I have sensed in the past. By their nature, they are present for decades or centuries.

I remember a profound sense of gratitude I felt for a marijuana plant I grew many years ago that produced three crops, including one after someone broke into my space and terribly damaged it. Against such an experience, a traditional Western view of nature consisting of distinct objects to be exploited without corresponding effects upon ourselves is simply untenable. It was under the influence of that weed that I once perceived trees to speak to me, “We are here.”

Indeed they are.